As of mid-February 2014, only 1,600 French troops remain in Mali, down from 2,500 at the beginning of the year and from more than 4,000 shortly after the start of the French intervention in January 2013. From the outset, the government of French President François Hollande has sought to portray its military engagement in Mali as a short-term endeavor. Hollande stated last month that “most of the mission has been accomplished.”[1]

Indeed, the past year brought many signs of a return to stability in the troubled West African country. In May, international donors pledged more than $4 billion in aid to support Mali’s recovery, while in July a United Nations peacekeeping force, the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), took control from an African Union mission.[2] The presidential election in July, in which voter participation reached an all-time high (despite low turnout in areas where rebel groups remained active), was hailed both at home and abroad as a surprise success. The pervasive insecurity and political uncertainty that followed the country’s March 2012 coup d’état seemed diminished.

Six months after the election, however, the challenges to Mali’s long-term stability remain daunting, as the new government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita struggles to find its footing. The government desperately needs to reestablish state sovereignty over the country’s northern regions, reform the armed forces, and clamp down against corruption and strengthen the rule of law. Until major progress is made in each of these areas, little can be done to reduce the threat of terrorism. This article finds that the underlying causes of Mali’s 2012 instability—disaffection in the north, a fractured military, and systemic corruption—have yet to be fully addressed by the Malian government and its international partners.

The Northern Regions
Mali’s three northernmost regions of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal comprise an area the size of Texas. These regions spent most of 2012 under the control of jihadist groups allied with al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which had hijacked a separatist rebellion launched by the Tuareg-dominated Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) after the fall of Libya’s Mu`ammar Qadhafi.[3] In January 2013, militants pushed southward toward the town of Mopti, perhaps intending to forestall international intervention by capturing the nearby airbase.[4] This action brought an immediate French military response. French troops needed only a few weeks to drive these groups out of the cities and towns they had occupied. The MNLA, after having fallen out with its erstwhile jihadist allies, subsequently retook control of the town of Kidal, its stronghold in the far north and the historical flashpoint of previous Tuareg nationalist rebellions. Its fighters supported, or at least tolerated, French and Chadian troops in the region as they searched for jihadist hideouts in the desert.[5]

The Malian government aims to assert its presence in Kidal in accordance with a peace agreement signed in June 2013, but it was not until November, through the concerted efforts of UN negotiators, that the MNLA finally agreed to vacate the governor’s office and state radio station, key symbols of central government authority in the region.[6] Government services are currently nonexistent. The process of cantonment of the region’s rebels has stalled, and thousands of armed MNLA fighters continue to move freely in Kidal. Malian officials and security forces maintain only a token presence in the town, and the Malian judicial system has yet to extend to the region where, according to a report by the UN secretary general, “the authority of judicial officers is not recognized by local residents,” and traditional authorities have only a tenuous grip on public order.[7] The Malian government’s presence is more pronounced and welcome in other northern cities such as Timbuktu, Gao, and Ansongo, where Tuareg separatism has historically been much weaker and which are more multiethnic than Kidal. Nevertheless, in late 2013, these towns witnessed violent public protests against corrupt public officials, police racketeering, and endemic insecurity.[8] The sentiment runs strong among northerners that their state has abandoned them.

The Armed Forces
President Keita has made greater headway in reasserting authority over Mali’s restive armed forces. Most notably, he ordered the arrest of Amadou Haya Sanogo, the officer who led a junta that took power in March 2012.[9] Sanogo’s broad support in the army rank-and-file, as well as among certain sectors of the population in the capital Bamako, had previously dissuaded civilian authorities from challenging him, but in the wake of deadly clashes within the security forces, he is now awaiting trial for the killings of at least 21 of his comrades-in-arms.[10] Keita also dissolved Sanogo’s army reform commission and removed many of his allies from senior posts.[11] After nearly two years of tense civil-military relations, the Malian armed forces are again under civilian control.

The European Union, meanwhile, has sought to strengthen the Malian military, overseeing the creation and training of four new battalions. The EU Training Mission in Mali was launched in February 2013 with the aim of building discipline, unit cohesion and combat capacity, all of which have been sorely lacking. Yet this mission has also exposed longstanding fault lines in Mali’s military: in June 2013, members of the inaugural training battalion boycotted their graduation ceremony, accusing their commanders of embezzling European Union funds intended for their upkeep.[12] Mutinies and disputes over leadership, pay, and promotions have broken out among soldiers both in Bamako and in the north, sometimes turning deadly.[13] This partly explains why, in light of the army’s operational impediments, Mali’s previously elected president, a former army officer himself, outsourced security in the north to various local militias and opted not to confront AQIM.[14] The military’s dysfunctions, coupled with its spotty human rights record,[15] have left foreign governments reluctant to offer assistance. The United States, most notably, has yet to renew cooperation with Mali’s armed forces. “Any eventual resumption of assistance to the Malian military will prioritize security sector reform, professional norms, the reassertion of civilian authority, accountability mechanisms, and the rule of law,” a U.S. Department of State spokesperson said in September 2013.[16]

Nepotism, graft, and lack of discipline in the army merely reflect the wider pattern of venality within the Malian state. Donor governments, convinced that the country was on the right track after its 1991 transition to democracy, were largely willing to overlook this problem. The subsequent influx of international assistance only made matters worse, rendering Mali’s government utterly dependent on foreign aid and unaccountable to its people.[17] A culture of impunity emerged, such that public officials caught abusing their office ran little risk of losing their jobs, let alone going to prison. President Keita has represented himself as a reformer who will clean out the “Augean stables” in Bamako, and declared 2014 “the anti-corruption year.” He arrested magistrates and the head of the national lottery; his anti-corruption czar issued a report detailing tens of millions of dollars of losses from state coffers due to embezzlement for 2012 alone.[18]

Previous presidents, however, all announced anti-corruption drives amid great fanfare but without significant impact. It remains to be seen whether Keita’s administration will succeed where its predecessors failed. One of the most worrisome forms of corruption is the growing trend of land expropriation in and around Bamako and other Malian cities: members of Mali’s classe politique have often been able to count on the complicity of dishonest officials to force poor families off their property, and the problem has become widespread enough for civil society leaders and human rights groups to take notice.[19]

Public faith in the state’s ability to uphold the rule of law has ebbed tremendously, and not only in the north. While the brutal punishments inflicted by jihadist groups in northern Mali generated considerable international outrage in 2012, few outside of Mali paid attention to the upsurge in lynching of suspected thieves throughout the country—a phenomenon that began well before the 2012 crisis.[20] In many neighborhoods in Bamako, anyone accused of theft faces the threat of being doused in gasoline and set alight by a mob.[21] Residents have so little trust in law enforcement’s effectiveness that they have removed suspects from police custody expressly to see them lynched.[22]

The harsh justice exacted by AQIM and its allies can only be understood against the backdrop of chaos that has prevailed throughout Mali for many years, abetted by crooked elites and negligent officials. The jihadists, while they controlled the city of Timbuktu, were disliked for their ideology but tolerated for bringing order. “Whether the person is white or black, they are lashed with the same whip,” one resident told a journalist.[23] If AQIM commander Abu Zeid was a bloodthirsty zealot, he was perceived as an honest one, and he even paid off his local debts before fleeing Gao last year ahead of the French advance.[24] Many Malians would not expect the same of their political leaders, who often appear to citizens as not only incapable of ensuring justice, but actively opposed to it.

President Keita must make significant progress if he wants to restore his people’s faith in the Malian state, its ability to uphold the law, and its willingness to protect the weak against the predations of the powerful. While Keita’s rhetoric has been encouraging, some of his actions risk repeating the mistakes of his predecessors. In recent legislative elections, his party backed several northern candidates connected to Tuareg rebels, leading some to suspect that he seeks to co-opt northern elites instead of fostering an open, inclusive dialogue to air long-held grievances.[25] Under the previous government, a similar divide-and-rule strategy created short-term stability, but it undermined long-term stability by further weakening the state and leaving northern populations dependent on trafficking and other illicit activities for survival, which paved the way for rebellion.[26]

The country’s future, however, is not entirely in Keita’s hands. Mali’s international supporters have been slow to match their promises of support with action. MINUSMA remains chronically underfunded and undermanned (its troop strength currently stands at half of its authorized 12,600 total).[27] As of October 2013, a substantial portion of the aid funds pledged for Mali have yet to be disbursed. Aid from some key donors, including Canada, has been suspended since the 2012 coup.

In the meantime, northern Mali remains volatile. Sporadic rocket and improvised explosive device attacks, as well as car bombings, have occurred in Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, killing civilians and MINUSMA peacekeepers. The jihadist groups that fled the field of battle early last year have not given up the fight, and could simply be awaiting the departure of French forces before reasserting themselves on the ground. As France’s military operation in Mali draws down, it is clear that until the Malian government offers basic services and earns the respect of more of its citizens, the terrorist threat will persist for the foreseeable future.

Bruce Whitehouse teaches Anthropology, Global Studies and Africana Studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Bamako, Mali, from 2011 through 2012. He blogs about Mali at

[1] “Mali: les effectifs militaires français ramenés mi-février de 2.500 hommes à 1.600,” Agence France-Presse, January 8, 2014.

[2] “Donors Pledge About $4.22 Billion to Aid Mali Recovery,” Reuters, May 15, 2013.

[3] Andrew Lebovich, “The Local Face of Jihadism in Northern Mali,” CTC Sentinel 6:6 (2013); Georg Klute, “Post-Gaddafi Repercussions in Northern Mali,” Strategic Review for Southern Africa 35:2 (2013).

[4] “Mali Asks France for Help as Islamist Militants Advance,” France 24, January 11, 2013.

[5] “Mali War Shifts as Rebels Hide in High Sahara,” New York Times, February 9, 2013.

[6] “Report of the Secretary General on the Situation in Mali,” United Nations, January 2, 2014, p. 7.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Mali: à Kidal et Tombouctou, le ras-le-bol monte chez les habitants,” Radio France Internationale, October 12, 2013; “Corrupt Police Blamed as Jihadists Return to Mali’s Streets,” Sapa-Agence France-Presse, October 17, 2013.

[9] “Mali’s President Replaces Junta-Linked Army Chief,” Reuters, November 9, 2013.

[10] “Mali: General Sanogo Arrested and Taken into Custody in the ‘Missing Red Berets’ Case,” International Federation for Human Rights, December 3, 2013.

[11] “Mali’s President Replaces Junta-Linked Army Chief.”

[12] “La révolte du premier bataillon malien formé par l’Union européenne,” La Croix, June 14, 2013.

[13] “Une attaque par des soldats maliens d’un camp militaire de ‘Bérets rouges’ à Bamako fait plusieurs blessés,” Les Echos, February 8, 2013; “Au Mali, l’armée humiliée engage sa refondation,” Le Monde, July 12, 2013.

[14] On the history of the “militiatary” strategy in Mali, see Martin van Vliet, “The Challenges of Retaking Northern Mali,” CTC Sentinel 5:11-12 (2012). According to Colonel El Hajj Ag Gamou, one of the Malian army’s top commanders in the north, the government of Amadou Toumani Touré (president from 2002-2012) had a tacit agreement with AQIM not to molest the group as long as it did not carry out hostile acts on Malian soil. See Isabelle Lasserre and Thierry Oberlé, Notre Guerre Secrète au Mali (Paris: Fayard, 2013), p. 101.

[15] “Mali: Preliminary Findings of a Four-Week Mission: Serious Human Rights Abuses Continue,” Amnesty International, June 7, 2013.

[16] “U.S. Lifts Restrictions on Bilateral Assistance to Mali,” U.S. Department of State, September 2013.

[17] Isaline Bergamaschi, “Mali: How to Avoid Making the Same Mistakes,” Good Governance Africa, April 1, 2013.

[18] Thierry Oberlé, “Au Mali, IBK lance la lutte contre la corruption,” Le Figaro, January 10, 2014; Mamadou Fofana, “IBK à propos de la lutte contre la corruption: ‘J’ai déjà remis 100 dossiers à la justice,’” L’Indépendant, January 11, 2014.

[19] Adama Dao, “Journée mondiale de l’habitat au Mali: Mettre fin aux expulsions forcées,” Le 26 Mars, October 12, 2013; Madiassa Diakité, “Spéculation foncière: le Mali sur une poudrière?” Le Républicain, January 9, 2014.

[20] Bruce Whitehouse, “‘A Festival of Brigands’: In Search of Democracy and Political Legitimacy in Mali,” Strategic Review for Southern Africa 35:2 (2013).

[21] Bruce Whitehouse, “Vigilante Democracy,” Bridges from Bamako blog, April 12, 2012.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Jon Lee Anderson, “State of Terror: What Happened When an Al Qaeda Affiliate Ruled in Mali,” New Yorker, July 1, 2013.

[24] “Aqmi: la face cachée du chef terroriste Abou Zeïd,” Radio France Internationale, February 24, 2013.

[25] “Mali: Reform or Relapse,” International Crisis Group, January 10, 2014.

[26] Peter Tinti, “Illicit Trafficking and Instability in Mali: Past, Present and Future,” The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, January 2014.

[27] “Report of the Secretary General on the Situation in Mali,” p. 11.

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